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The Sunshine State

Written on: Friday August 14th, 2009

Having toured the world now for over thirteen months, it was finally time to head back to USA.  But before I saw family, there was one more stop to see a friend. Liz, my South Africa bungee/Greek Island exploring partner, lived in Tampa, FL.  It was there that I spent the last days of my trip.

After meeting me at the airport we drove to her cute home in South Tampa, just blocks off the bay.  The tropical feel of Tampa struck a chord with me and it felt good to be there.  An early night ensued as I was happy to be not only on the ground, but on US soil for the first time in 2009.

The next morning little time was wasted before she started showing me the town, starting with a liesurely stroll for breaky at her local neighborhood joint, Pinky's.  The food was delightful, providing fuel for our continued exploration along the bayshore. When I spotted some commotion in the water ahead, I thought I saw a manatee playing close to the water's edge!

 'I don't think it is a manatee.  I've lived here for most of my life and have never seen one in the bay.'

"Come on!  Hurry!  It think it IS a manatee!"

Sure enough, we hustled over to the creature and discovered that it in fact WAS a manatee, playfully swimming in the shallows, just a few feet from us.  Too cool! She was as amazed as I was to see him there, as it was an extremely rare occurrence to see the friendly animal in these waters.  That proved to be just the beginning of our underwater sightings, with a shark and a large crab seen on our walk soon thereafter.

The extended geography of Tampa Bay actually consists of three cities: Tampa, Clearwater and St. Petersburg.  After stopping to hunt for a few caches in the plentiful parks of Tampa, I was about to visit the second of the tri-cities: Clearwater.  Having just traveled to some of the most remote, most beautiful beaches in the world, I was pleasantly shocked to experience how gorgeous the sand and water truly was in this little town.  The soft, white sands felt all too familiar on my feet as we plunked our gear onto the beach and made for the water.  Mmmmm...that's what I like!  This bathwater ampitheater was the perfect setting for maritime fun.  Children splashed in the shallows while swimmers paralleled the shoreline farther out.  Both sail and power boats criss-crossed in the distance while pelicans hovered above, waiting for the perfect snack to come dangerously close to the water's surface, kamikazing their powerful bodies into the surge, beak first, scooping up the unsuspecting meal beneath the water.  We were content to chill on the beach, play a little frisbee and cool off every half hour in the temperate Florida sea.  After a while, we made our way over to a legend on the beach: Frenchie's Rockaway.  The live music in the background made for a sensational vibe as we munched on mahi mahi tacos and sipped a cold beer.

But there was still much more to see on this, my first full day in Tampa.  We cruised closer to home to catch the end of the spinnaker races coming in to the Davis Island marina.  The boats coming off the water struck an ironic chord with me.  It was over a year ago that I started this trip living on a boat, sailing the oceans with wanderlust in my heart and uncertainty in my head.  How amazing it was to see everything come full circle back in Tampa!  A final margarita on the island was the perfect nightcap to a fabulous day.

As Liz had to work the following day, I had a chance to catch up on correspondence before taking her vespa around town to hunt down a few more caches.  It felt almost normal for me to be solo, exploring a town I had never been too.  The only differences were that now I could read the signs and didn't have to rent the scooter.  When she returned from work a somehwat elegant dinner of ceviche, scallops and sangria was enjoyed at a nearby restaurant.

The weekend had more excitement in store.  Saturday found us on what was billed as one of the best beaches in Florida: Fort de Soto.  It was nice, offering for some the chance to splash in the water with friends, others the opportunity to fish for the big one, and me the setting for what was a bit of a milestone: my 1000th geocache!  Sure, it was a minor event in life, but being in the sun and on the sand and with a friend while it happened made the experience kind of nice for me.  After photographs of the find were secured, we sauntered the entire coast, only to get caught in a downpour on the return, about a mile from shelter.  No worries; we hightailed it back and passed the time in typical American fashion: ice cream!  By the time the oversized rootbeer float was finished, so was the rain.  Some amazing photos were taken en route to Liz's place, as the storm was touch and go the entire time.  Inspiration struck, and the planned casual dinner at home turned borderline gourmet as I found motivation to create a tasty mussels dish that caused the wine to disappear quite rapidly.

Sunday was my first opportunity to explore the third city in the Tampa Bay area: St. Petersburg.  We went early to check out this quaint town.  We visited the shoreline, strolled the main drag and prepared for the Devil Rays baseball game.  Having missed this team's pennant run of last year, I was surprised to see the level of excitement for this random game of a team that was likely not going to make the post-season.  It was exciting!  And also surprising.  For this was also the first time that I heard the Star Spangeled Banner from my new perspective on the world.  I was touched and it showed. 

Making our way home after a convincing Rays victory, we stopped off at a scrumptious rib joint at which to dine, followed up by a visit to the epic Ybor City neighborhood of Tampa.  This place was filled with interesting history!  Piracy and cigar barrons shaped this region, resulting in a festive atmosphere that was home to interesting archiecture, a plethora of pubs and the infamous cigar roller, Roberto Ramirez.  At an age when most people would be liesurely enjoying their retirment, Senior Ramirez still sat at his desk and hand rolled up to 500 cigars a day, a practice that he started in his home country of Cuba at the tendor age of nine.  Over the years he was recognized twice as the top cigar roller in the world, and was currently in the top ten.  Yes, there were many treasures to uncover in this part of Florida.

My final day here, and for that matter of the trip, found me once again in Clearwater.  Liz and I had a relaxing day chilling on the beach and playing in the water.  As we polished off some conch at Rockaway, listening to the irie tunes permeating the air, I felt a calm come over me.  The sun was fading into the sea as my trip was fading into history.  Yes, today was the perfect end to an unbelievably remarkable experience that I felt very lucky and very priveledged to have accomplished.